West indian literature

The Varied History of Dakhni Urdu Literature in South India

Zoe Woodbury High School

On the second floor of the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad is an extensive library. Despite its large collection of manuscripts and books spread over several rooms, it remains largely unknown to many visitors to the museum.

Among the many rare manuscripts held at the Salar Jung Library, which include texts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Sanskrit and other languages, are dozens of literary works in Dakhni. Along with Persian, Dakhni was a major literary language of the Deccan sultanates, the kingdoms that ruled the region surrounding present-day Hyderabad from the 14th to the end of the 17th century.

Those who recognize the name Dakhni may know it as a language spoken in and around Hyderabad today. Sometimes called Dakhni Urdu, Hyderabadi or even Hyderabadi Hindi, modern Dakhni resembles standard Urdu but is distinguished by the use of distinct words and phrases, some of which are borrowed from neighboring languages ​​such as Marathi.

Today, some call it a dialect (or even an accent), while others call it an independent language. Dakhni can be heard not only in Telangana but across Karnataka, Maharashtra and even Tamil Nadu in regional varieties. Spoken primarily (but not exclusively) by Muslims, Dakhni unites speakers across the borders of modern-speaking states.

Rather than being confined to the political borders of a single state, the language is used throughout the Deccan region: the plateau spanning what is now south-central India. Throughout its history, this region of India has been characterized by its linguistic and cultural diversity. Marathi and Telugu literature flourished alongside Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit.

Influx into the Deccan

The influx of people from the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, East Africa and Europe brought new products, goods and ideas to the region. The Deccan’s history as a connected space has meant that much has been shared between social groups – from forms of dress and gift conventions to astrology and divination practices.

It is in this context that pre-modern Dakhni – related to but distinct from the modern language – began to take shape in the 14th century. This happened when Muslims from northern India migrated to the Deccan following the conquests of the Delhi Sultanate under Muhammad bin Tughluq in southern India and the establishment of a new capital at Daulatabad.

These migrants spoke a form of Old Hindi-Urdu – which did not include two separate languages ​​until the 18th century – called Hindawi or Dihlawi. Initially employed by writers belonging to the Chishti and Qadiri Sufi orders, Dakhni soon became the language of choice for writing lyric poems, verse narratives, and other literary works in the courts of the Deccan sultanates.

Kadam Rao Padam Rao – first known verse of Dakhni

The first known verse account in Dakhni – untitled but later named the Masnavi Kadam Rao Padam Rao – dates back to the early 15th century, when the Bahmani Kingdom ruled large parts of the Deccan. Over the next two centuries, after the founding of the Nizam Shahi, Adil Shahi and Qutb Shahi sultanates (in Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda respectively), Dakhni became a major literary language in the courts.

From the inception of the language, many Dakhni writers engaged with themes and literary forms drawn from the Indian environment. The Masnavi Kadam Rao Padam Rao, for example, is entirely centered on non-Muslim characters: King Kadam Rao, his two ministers and a yogi. At the end of the 16th century, Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the ruler of the Sultanate of Bijapur, composed a songbook called Kitab-iNauras.

In addition to writing songs on themes of Hindu deities and visualization of ragas (Indian musical modes), he composed them in the literary form of pada, which was used across India for musical compositions at the era.

Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, founder of Hyderabad and King of Golconda, incorporated themes such as monsoon lovesickness while writing in the Persian poetic form of the ghazal. And authors of Dakhni novels such as Pem Nemand Gulshan-iIshq drew inspiration from Sufi themes while setting their poems within an Indian geography and landscape.

Incorporation of Indian and Iranian elements

Recently, art historians like Deborah Hutton have drawn attention to the incorporation of Indian and Iranian elements into the architectural monuments of the ancient Deccan sultanates. In classical Dakhni literature, we see something quite similar: the incorporation of a diverse set of literary patterns drawn from Hindawi and Sanskrit, as well as Persian and Arabic.

In forging a literary language, Dakhni authors drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, creating something very new.

But while Dakhni writers incorporated Indian imagery and themes, they also relied heavily on Persian models. Since the establishment of the Bahmani Sultanate in the 14th century, Iranian scholars and administrators have played a vital role in the kingdoms. In the 16th and 17th centuries, after the generalization of the use of dakhani, the role of Persian did not diminish.

Role of Persian as an official and administrative language

Not only was Persian used as the main language of administration in the sultanates (a role never assigned to Dakhni), but the kings of Bijapur and Golconda continued to fund Persian compositions along with those of Dakhni. Historically, scholars have often drawn attention to competing social groups in the Deccan sultanates.

These included Afaqis (newcomers from Iran) and Dakhnis (individuals whose families had been in the Deccan for generations or East Africans originally brought to the region as slaves). But more recently, historians like Subah Dayal have shown that there was considerable fluidity between the two groups, which did not always correspond to the Persian and Dakhni languages.

Several writers – like Wajhi, who was employed by the Qutb Shahis – wrote in both languages. Even those who wrote exclusively in Dakhni were familiar with Persian literary conventions. Most Dakhni texts were written in Persian genres and according to Persian meters, and many translations were produced from Persian into Dakhni.

Moh Quli Qutb Shah, founder of Hyderabad

Patrons and poets recognized that Dakhni, unlike Persian, would not be intelligible to a wider, Persian-literate readership outside South Asia. However, Dakhni writers forged ties with writers and readers outside the Deccan. Some authors called the language in which they wrote Gujri, Hindawi, or even Hindi, thus creating a link between their texts and the literary traditions of Gujarat or North India.

Dakhni thus possessed a status somewhere between Persian and the regional languages ​​of Kannada, Marathi and Telugu. These associations with Persian did not mean that premodern Dakhni writers did not emphasize place. From the 15th century, the author of the Masnavi Kadam Rao Padam Rao places himself and his patron in the Deccan.

Throughout the varied history of Dakhni literature, authors had deep aspirations for their works, but also established a close connection between language and region, and these priorities were not contradictory. The historical traces of this literary past show the delimitation of spaces according to different linguistic lines, which go beyond the geographies of our modern imaginations.

(Zoë Woodbury High is a doctoral student in the Department of South Asian Languages ​​and Cultures at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on literary, cultural and religious interactions at the court of Bijapur under Ibrahim Adil Shah II. She currently lives in Hyderabad.)


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